To Gain Upper Hand
hen I was a kid in the New York streets, one of the games we played was handball. It was the perfect game of the depression years because playing it didn't cost much.
The 15 cents you spent on a Spaldeen and the two cents for white chalk to mark the "boundaries" is all you needed.
Kind landlords in the neighborhood would let you mark two lines on their brick walls and there was your handball court. Later, when we got better at the game, we'd walk two miles to the park where there were "real" courts. At that stage we'd also graduated to that little black ball that seemed as hard as a billiard ball when you slapped it. Boy, to get used to hitting that baby, your hands would swell like a catcher's mitt.
There was one kid on our block who never wanted to play handball and we always wondered why. He was a nice kid who was good at all kinds of sports and when he put on boxing gloves, we saw that he could fight like hell. But, what did he ever have against handball?
One day he confided to two of us he could trust and came clean. "My mother won't let me play that game because she's afraid I might ruin my fingers," he said. It turned out this kid from a poor neighborhood was taking piano lessons, his mother scraping up the few dollars for weekly lessons.
Now, a kid on our block was not going to tell everybody that what he was carrying along with his school books was sheet music for the piano. If he did, he'd be razzed from our neighborhood to Canarsie. Anyway that kid never did learn to play the piano very well but became a pretty good amateur fighter and one of the ways he got himself in shape was, of all things, playing handball.
Today, handball is not only a game for kids. Guys ranging in age from 50 to 80 are defying the calendar and their doctors by still engaging in a game they have played their entire lives.
I knew a fellow, Al Morales, an ex-boxer who was playing handball into his 80s, and handball had nothing to do with his death. Until his retirement, Morales worked here at The News as a printer for more than 40 years.
Al played with other seniors at the Coney Island Courts, where they competed as fiercely as young men. "We really play to beat each other," I remember him saying. "Every now and then there's a little tiff over whether the ball went out of bounds, but there's never any hard feelings after it's settled."
Al impressed me with this simple philosophy: "We may be young in spirit, but we're too old to be mad at anybody while playing a game."
But, handball can be considered as one of the games that has professional allure. Many a champion player lives a lifetime unrecognized except by his peers.
Did you know that Steve Lott, the former co-trainer of Mike Tyson, is a handball champion? Or that Jimmy Jacobs, the late manager of Tyson, was one of the greatest handball players of all time? Jacobs was called "the Babe Ruth of handball" while playing at the New York Athletic Club.
As a matter of fact, the NYAC, one of America's most historic sports clubs, has just finished renovating its handball/racketball courts, complete with glass walls and shiny new locker rooms.
Fighters are starting to play the game at the NYAC, and no wonder. Through the years there have been some great fighters that played handball to help get in shape. It's a wonderful game to strengthen hands, arms and legs. And, after all, what does a fighter use more? Okay, I'll include heart, too.
It goes way back with boxing and handball. In 1910, James Jeffries challenged Jack Johnson. Big Jeff hadn't fought in six years and ballooned to more than 300 pounds. He played handball daily and lost 100 pounds. Of course, it didn't help that much because Johnson stopped him in the 15th round.
Jack Dempsey got ready for the speedy George Carpentier by playing handball steadily. It worked for Jack, knocking out Carpentier in round four. Rocky Marciano played daily in his Grossinger training camp. He was fighting Roland Lastarza and the handball worked there, too. Rocky won by KO in the 11th round. Tyson, being a street kid, was pretty good at the game but when he was training for his fight with Tony Tucker for the unification of the heavyweight title, he played against the master, Jacobs.
Tyson lost the handball game but won the undisputed heavyweight crown.
Original Publication Date: 1/13/02 BACK